“The term ’natural wine’ is an insult to the humanity of wine,” said Chilean winemaker François Massoc during a discussion with db in Itata last week.
The winemaker, who is well-known in Chile for his wines using grapes from the historic vineyards of Chile, particularly those from the Itata Valley, made the comment when discussing his work to preserve a fast-disappearing legacy of small-scale viticulture in the south of the country.
Although his own approach to winemaking involves the use of grapes grown without synthetic inputs, and winemaking with no additives, other than small amounts of sulphur dioxide, he expressed strong opinions on the term ‘natural wine’, choosing not to use it because it fails to recognise the role of humans in all aspects of wine.
Having told db that he hopes to turn an abandoned school in Quillón into an agriculture and oenology training facility for the people of Itata, he said that his goal was to retain a younger generation in the region who are leaving for the cities, accelerating a decline in Itata’s vineyard area, including the loss of historic ungrafted vines, some of which are over 200 years old.
“We don’t want to lose the younger generation, and now, with 4G, you are not isolated [if you stay in a rural community], you don’t have to go to the city – so there are better chances to motivate young people to stay and still have a good time,” he said,
Continuing, he said of his work in the region, “Our goal is recovering humanity.”
He then said, “And that’s why I don’t like the term natural wine, because it’s an insult to the humanity of wine; wine is a very human product, maybe the most human of all… from the person who makes it to the person who pours it.”
He also commented that his own wines from Itata were an attempt to give growers in the area a better life by paying between five and 15 times the average price for grapes, which can be as low as 10 cents a kilogram, even when buying fruit from ancient vines.
Meanwhile, Chilean vigneron and soil scientist Leonardo Erazu, expressed his great love for the Itata region, as well as his concerns for its future.
“The first vines were planted here in 1551, and you can find vines that can be over 300 years old, but the area of vines is shrinking as the older people are retiring and the younger generation don’t want to take over,” he said.
“There are no tractors here, everything is done by hand or horse, it is very hard work,” he added.
However, remarking on the opportunities for vintners in Itata, aside from the ancient vines, he said it was the weathered granite soils that made the area distinctive. “As a soil scientist, the potential here is huge,” he stated.
“The granite here is the oldest in the country, it is over 200 million years old, so it is degraded, and that allows the vines to go deep and escape the drought, the soils are a fantastic mix of mother rock that has decomposed into clay, so even when the vineyards are neglected, they are thriving; the vines are naturally adapted to the environment,” he explained.
Despite such conditions, land is cheap in Itata, with a hectare of land changing hands for around US$10,000.
With ancient vineyards producing low yields, the life of a grower in Itata is under threat, according to Erazu, with producers abandoning vineyards or lured into removing them for the better returns of forestry using fast growing pines or eucalyptus.
This is of great concern because this southerly part of Chile’s wine scene represents not only the beginnings of viticulture in South America – vines first came into Chile with the Spanish conquistadors via the port of Concepción in Itata – but also because it represents the largest area of ungrafted vines in the world.
Another producer from the area, Roberto Henríquez, who makes wine under a label by the same name, said that these ancient vines were not only part of the “tradition, culture and history of Chile, but also, “A museum for viticulture.”
Among the old vines in the region of Itata is a grape called País, which originates from Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, where it is called Listán Prieto, and was taken to Mexico in 1540 by Spanish Franciscan priests, who founded several missions, explaining another synomyn for this grape – it is called Misson in North America (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz, 2013, Wine Grapes).
Listán Prieto was then introduced to Chile in the 1550s, and in the 1850s it was renamed País. Today, fewer than 8,000 hectares remain in Chile, although there were more than 15,000ha at the turn of this century.